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The Perks of Giving Thanks: How Thanksgiving Can Help You Live a Happier Life

Giving thanks is more than just a holiday tradition — it improves your mental wellbeing, encourages you to give back and steers you on a healthy path.

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Around dinner tables and on social media, families and friends are expressing gratitude as part of the Thanksgiving tradition.

But taking the time to reflect on the positive parts of our lives is more than just an engrained part of the holiday’s celebration it also boosts our mental wellbeing, prompts us to give back to others and steers us on a healthy path.

“This ought not be something that happens only on Thanksgiving,” says Robert Duke, a professor of music and human learning in the Butler School of Music. “If there’s a resolution to be made at Thanksgiving, it’s to be conscious of the positive things that happen in your life all the time and to not make this a momentary event that only happens because some holiday reminds you to be thankful.”

Duke and psychology professor Art Markman star in the “Two Guys on Your Head” radio show on KUT News 90.5. Markman and Duke say memory and mood strongly affect one another, creating both “vicious and virtuous cycles.”

“If you’re in a bad mood, you tend to remember bad things from your life, which then makes you feel bad,” Markman says. “If you want to break that cycle, one great way to do that is to think of the great things that have happened to you. Thinking of those things makes you feel better, which makes you notice more of the great things, and then you can create that virtuous cycle.”

Giving thanks is an actionable step we can all take to begin living happier lives, Duke and Markman say.

“I don’t have to rely on the whims of my emotional self to decide how I’m going to feel at any given moment,” Duke says. “I can choose to focus on these things that are positive and I know bring me pleasure, and that will change the way I feel in the moment.”

Giving thanks is also a humbling experience, as we realize we didn’t accomplish our successes alone, Markman says. Realizing others are willing to lend a hand makes us willing to help others in need.

“Making that list of the things you’re grateful for reminds you of all the people in your corner who have helped you in the past,” Markman says, “and whom you can rely on to achieve things in the future.”

With that in mind, The University of Texas at Austin family has a lot for which to be thankful this year. Following Duke and Markman’s advice about showing gratitude, and you could live a happier life. 

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 2014, and some information has been updated.